Week of May 04, 2021

Rare Earths – A Strategic Assessment


As concerns about open hostilities between China and the US increase, the issue of Rare Earth Elements (REEs) scarcity increases.  For years, China has managed to totally control the mining and refining of rare earths.  Given the importance of REEs in defense technology, it’s time to take a levelheaded look at REEs, defense technology, and whether or not America is facing a critical shortage of the group of elements.

Today, REEs are considered strategic minerals of the 21st Century.  This is a dramatic change for a group of elements that were once considered merely chemical curiosities.  China is threatening to use rare earths as a “nuclear” option in their growing trade riff with the US.  China accounts for more than 70% of global output of rare earths and it has actively restricted exports of rare earths to the US as the threat of a trade war has waxed and waned.

Two years ago, the Commerce Department released a report requested by President Trump to investigate US access to rare earths in an emergency.

The report said, “The United States is heavily dependent on critical mineral imports…If China or Russia were to stop exports to the United States and its allies for a prolonged period – similar to China’s rare earth embargo in 2010 – an extended supply disruption could cause significant shocks.”

Rare Earth Elements are relatively unknown to the average person.  Names like europium, praseodymium, neodymium, lanthanum, samarium, cerium and gadolinium rarely get mentioned in chemistry classes, much less normal conversation.  Although called “Rare Earths,” they are abundant in the Earth’s crust.  It was the fact that they were hard to extract and purify that led early scientists to think they were rare.  Before World War Two, the world’s supply of many of these elements was measured in grams and merely laboratory curiosities.  And the lack of samples guaranteed that scientists didn’t spend much time studying their properties.

The growth in electronics in the post WW II age changed all that.  Today REEs are critical for optics and electronics.  Europium, for instance provides the red phosphor in color cathode-ray tubes and liquid crystal displays used in computers and televisions.  There is no known substitute.

Rare earths are not just important for our cell phones, computers, and DVD players.  They are increasingly important in America’s national defense, which leaves the Department of Defense concerned that the United States may not have enough rare earths to wage a war, especially if China cuts off our supplies.

U.S. military technologies such as anti-submarine warfare, smart bombs, and night vision rely heavily upon rare earth elements.  But rebuilding an independent U.S. supply chain to protect the country from foreign dependency could take up to 10 years, according to a recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).  The GAO report was commissioned to look at national security risks that could arise from our dependency upon rare earth elements.

These are some of the military technologies that could be hurt with a rare earth embargo.

Rare earth elements are a critical part of devices such as lasers, radar, missile-guidance systems, satellites, and aircraft electronics. And many military systems also rely upon commercial computer hard drives that use rare earth magnets.  Specific examples of rare earth-driven technologies include the navigation system for the M-1 Abrams battle tank, and the electric drive for the Navy’s DDG-51 destroyers.   The GAO report states, “Defense systems will likely continue to depend on rare earth materials, based on their life cycles and lack of effective substitutes.”  The rare earth element neodymium, for instance, is very magnetic and is used in everything from computer hard drives to wind turbines and hybrid cars.

But is it as bad as the US Government makes it?  In many ways, it is like looking at a glass of water – is the glass half full or half empty?

The US has world class REE mineral reserves, and the infrastructure is in place to exploit them.  The U.S. once supplied most of the global supply of rare earth elements, and manufactured rare earth products such as the neodymium magnets.  But rare earth processing has largely shifted to China since the 1990s.

The key to America producing enough REEs soon lies in the REE mine at Mountain Pass, California.  Mountain Pass is perhaps the largest non-Chinese rare earth deposit in the world.  For years, the United States was self-sufficient in the mining of REE thanks to the Mountain Pass deposits which were discovered in 1949.  Two prospectors were looking for uranium deposits, when their Geiger counter detected high radioactivity in a rock outcropping.  The prospectors staked a claim and sent off ore samples.  When the assay results came back, they discovered that they had discovered a rare earth mineral called bastnaesite, which was worthless at the time.

Mountain Pass was developed at a critical time.  By the 1960s color televisions were finding their way into every American household and europium was critical for their television tubes.  As the mine developed more efficient solvent extraction processes to extract europium, they produced in turn more REEs, which allowed scientists to find new uses for them.  Many of these new applications were in defense industries.


The problem for REE mining in the US

The Chinese have used their chokehold on REEs to maintain their dominant position in the industry, while discouraging development of a competitor that could mine REE ores and then turn them into “consumer ready” products.  For years, the Chinese would manipulate REE prices to maximize profits, while preventing development of a competitive REE sector in the US.  Even when the US managed to mine REE ores, the concentrate still had to be shipped to China for final refining.

That has changed.  MP Materials, which owns Mountain Pass Mine has acquired all the equipment for refining and is in the process of constructing a refinery on site.  The refinery is expected to be in operation next year.

“Our mission is to fully restore the [rare earth] supply chain to the United States of America,” said James Litinsky, MP Materials CEO.  “We are going to invest that capital.”

He continued, “We will ultimately, over time, make the magnets ourselves in the United States.”

Mountain Pass clearly can meet those goals.  The mine is the largest producer of REEs in the Western Hemisphere and produces 15% of the world’s production of REEs.

In September, President Trump signed an executive order to encourage REE production in the US.

The US government has also stepped in to ensure a constant supply of orders for the mine.  In November, the DoD gave the company nearly $10 million to begin refining the REEs on site.

Another factor that may help encourage mining at Mountain Pass is the recall election for Democratic Governor Newsome, whose environmental policies have discouraged mining in California.  If the California governor is recalled, a new governor may move to encourage REE mining.


But will that be enough?

While REE uses are critical in many defense technologies, it is easy to forget that REE demand is dominated by commercial demand – from electric vehicles to cell phones.

Litinsky noted that although Defense orders will be important, only about 1% of the REE demand is defense oriented.  The other 99% will be used for communications, wind turbines and electric vehicles.

So, is the US critically short of REEs?  No, it is not as bad as some articles make it out to be.  Not only is Mountain Pass producing REE ore, it will soon be producing refined REE products.  There is also the government’s strategic reserve of REE material.

There is also the option of recycling.  The rare earth element neodymium is used in powerful magnets is easily separated from consumer electronics.  The same is true for other REEs.

As we noted, rare earths are not rare.  There are mineral deposits across the world and China would be hard pressed to control all of them in a crisis.  Soon REEs would find their way from other countries to the Mountain Pass refinery.

Clearly, the REE crisis is a case of a glass that is half empty.  China still dominates the REE sector, but the US is moving quickly to establish itself as a major producer.  However, while it can supply defense needs, it still has a problem meeting all the consumer demand.

There is also the REE shortage outside the US, but still found in Western nations.  One must wonder if EU nations, without REE reserves, will modify their foreign policy towards China to keep the REEs coming.  Would German auto manufacturers, anxious to produce electric vehicles, push the government to make concessions to China?

That may be a bigger threat.

Week of April 27, 2021

Syrian Missile hits near Dimona – The facts so far


On Thursday April 22, a Syrian SA-5 surface-to-air missile (SAM) was launched from Syrian territory.  It proceeded to fly over Palestinian occupied territory and finally exploded over the northern Negev.

Before that, at around 1:30 am, Israeli jet fighters conducted a series of airstrikes on targets in Syrian Golan.  In response, Syrian Air Defense launched a salvo of Sam missiles at the attackers.  One missile continued flying over the occupied territory.  Although Israeli radar detected it, attempts to intercept it with Israel’s vaunted missile defense system failed.

The missile exploded in flight over the Negev, sending fragments crashing down on the community of Abu Qrainat, about 30 kilometers from the Israeli nuclear facility at Dimona.  No one yet, including the Israelis, think the missile was targeting Dimona.


What is the SA-5 Missile?

Developed by the Soviets in the 1960s, it was the premier Soviet air defense system for decades and remains a key part of air defense systems of former Soviet client nations like Syria.  The radar and command and control function allow it to fire and control several missiles at the same time.  It was designed to provide long range protection of critical cities or military bases.

The SA-5 missile is designed for medium and long-range attacks.  Its range is 300 kilometers, and its ceiling is 40,000 meters.  It has a 200+ Kg warhead.  The warhead is detonated either with a proximity fuse or a command from the ground.

If the missile fails to reach its target it is designed to self-detonate when its fuel runs out.  Although the missile is launched with four solid fuel boosters, it sustains its flight with a liquid fuel motor.

It is reported that the Soviets had made this type of missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.


Could the SA-5 have been used to attack Israel?

Yes.  The Soviets had given it a secondary mission capability as a surface-to-surface ballistic missile.  The 300-kilometer range is relatively modest by today’s standards.  But it was also incapable of reliably hitting any small target.  However, it was more than capable of hitting large targets like military bases or urban areas.

The warhead, which was designed for bringing down aircraft would also work well against soft targets like urban areas or buildings.  The warhead had 217 kg of high explosives and 37,000 steel pellets.  Nearly everyone within 125 feet of the explosion of the warhead would probably be hit by these pellets of 2 and 3.5 grams.  At about 100 feet, about 50% would sustain wounds that would be fatal.

Of course, a SA-5 missile could have been used to target Dimona, but since reports indicate all the sensitive nuclear weapon production equipment is underground, the missile would have inflicted some damage to the surface structure.


Was this intentional or an accident?

Some experts point their assessment toward an accident.  The missile is supposed to explode when its fuel runs out and it appears to have done that at about 300 km from the launch site.

“Runaway” SA-5 missiles are not unusual.  On July 1, 2019, a Syrian SAM missile flew over the Mediterranean and exploded in the air above Northern Cyprus.

Since it appears that the missile exploded in the atmosphere by itself, it is likely that it followed directions and self-destructed when the fuel ran out.


Why didn’t Israeli air defense shoot the missile down?

This is one question many people – especially the Israelis – are asking.  At this point in time, we do not know what system was responsible for the failure, although there are reports that it was the American made Patriot Theater Ballistic Missile System that is responsible.

If that is so, it points out a major flaw of the Patriot that other missiles like the SA-5 could take advantage of.

The Patriot is designed to intercept ballistic missiles like the Scud missile and Iran’s Shahab missile family.  These missiles are launched in a high ballistic trajectory that takes the missile out of the atmosphere, high into space and then back towards earth and its target.

This is a far different flight path taken by the SA-5 in normal operations.  The SA-5 follows a propelled flight path that is nearly parallel to the ground compared to the elliptical path of a traditional ballistic missile.

Sophisticated missile defenses focus more on ballistic missiles and their flight path.  Their radar stations and software are designed to give them their best results in these scenarios.

It also must be remembered that the SA-5 can operate in a ballistic missile mode at heights that are lower than many air defense missiles that aren’t purposely designed for low altitude targets like cruise missiles.


Lessons learned.

For all the money spent on air defense systems, they remain very vulnerable.  They may be able to intercept a ballistic missile coming in from an expected path, but that same system cannot intercept a cruise missile one mile away, ten feet off the ground, and heading towards the command vehicle at 600 miles per hour.  Nor can it stop a drone flitting 50 above the radar unit.

Modern air defense systems have impressive capabilities if they face what they are expecting – ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, hypersonic weapons, etc. – and the physics that govern them.

Israel has focused its missile defense against the Iranians and their missiles.  And, although the average layman does not realize it, the physics of launching a ballistic missile from Iran towards Israel fits a narrow band of trajectories – like the limited options for a basketball player taking a last second shot from the other side of the court.  Israel has invested much of its anti-missile defense in detecting and destroying missiles coming from those areas, at certain altitudes and at certain speeds.

Israeli may try to justify their failure by claiming that In this case, a missile came from an unexpected point in Syria.  It did not take the traditional ballistic course because it was using powered flight.  Its course was also headed for an isolated part of Israel, the Negev, instead of a population center.

A final lesson is that many weapons systems have alternate uses – uses that many tend to forget about.  In 1956, obsolete Israeli P-51 Mustang aircraft cut Egyptian telephone lines in the Sinai with their propellers in Operation Kadesh.  Similarly obsolete surface-to-air missiles like the SA-5 have other applications that military people forget.

War is not always about the best equipment, but it is about making the best use of equipment in ways that will surprise your enemy.


Israel’s damage control

Israel’s military spokesman Hidai Zilberman downplayed the likelihood of a deliberate attack. “There was no intention of hitting the nuclear reactor in Dimona,” he told reporters.

A senior US general also speculated that the incident was not intentional, but rather indicated a lack of Syrian air defense capability.

“I think it reflects actual incompetence in Syrian air defense… I do not believe it was an intentional attack,” marine general Kenneth McKenzie, head of US central command, said during a senate armed services committee hearing.

Whether it was intentional or an accident the effects of this incident will force the Israelis to examine their failure to intercept similar missiles in the future and may rethink their strategy of continuous attacks on Syria.

Also, it is likely that the Syrians discover that they can use this option of directing their SA-5 missiles like surface to surface to gain a deterrent against future Israeli attacks.

Week of April 19, 2021

Afghanistan – a Retrospective and Military Lessons


Biden has announced that the United States will pull out of Afghanistan by September 11th – the twentieth anniversary of the World Trade Center attack and the twentieth anniversary of the US decision to invade Afghanistan to capture al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

The American invasion (and retreat) also marks another chapter in Afghanistan’s successful opposition of foreign invasion that goes back over 2,000 years to Alexander the Great.  America has joined the Greeks, the English, and the Soviets in wasting lives and treasure in trying to conquer the Afghans.

Much has changed in the last 20 years – nearly all bad.  Today Americans are routinely spied upon by American intelligence agencies.  Until 9-11, it was illegal for the NSA and CIA to spy on Americans.

Today there security checkpoints everywhere not only around government sites and the Capitol.  Americans must show identification to board trains, airplanes and even interstate busses.  Invasive body searches are now accepted.

America has now turned its national security agencies on its own citizens, with widespread fear and danger of “domestic terrorists” a term that has been used lately by government and security officials.

The payoff for all of this has been minimal.  The Taliban still is found in Afghanistan.  And there are even more radical Muslim groups today like the resurgent ISIS.  Except for a few buildings, the impact of the Americans on Afghanistan will disappear within a few years.

Why did this happen?

A lot of the lessons are contradictory.  In the 1990s, the US ignored the turmoil that was occurring in Afghanistan.  They understood that Afghanistan was a quagmire that was best to avoid.  One the other hand, by ignoring what was happening a price had to be paid later, which it was.

One problem was that the US entered the war without strong goals.  Yes, there was the desire to find and capture bin Laden, but the US was throwing Special Forces units into Afghanistan within days to the 9-11 attack without knowing what the goal of the invasion was.

Rather than focus on attacking the al Qaeda strongholds, the US focused on a political win by capturing the capital of Kabul and other key cities that had nothing to do with the war on bin Laden.

The problem is that Americans used in their intervention the cover of being strong advocates of democracy and freedom.  Suddenly, political leaders who had wanted a “hands off” approach to Afghanistan were pushing for invasion to introduce democracy and human rights.  However, that goal quickly disappeared as Obama said he was elected to end the war and the nation building effort was needed at home.  He remained, however, committed to the Afghan war even after bin Laden was found and killed.

Trump also wanted to withdraw, only to find himself fighting his own generals, who wanted to remain.

The reality is that Americans and the West were not ready for the commitment needed to stop transnational terrorism.  President George W. Bush warned Americans that this would be a “lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen.”  British Defense Chief Adm. Michael Boyce warned in 2001 that the war on terrorism “may last 50 years.”

In this way, the war on terrorism, which was frequently fought in Afghanistan, was more like the Cold War, which occupied generations of American soldiers and sailors.  Although money was spent, and people died (especially in Vietnam) the war was ideological.  Much of the focus was on bolstering our allies politically and spreading the advantages of democracy and “evils of communism”.

This “Battle for the Minds” failed in Afghanistan.  And that contributed to the eventual pull out of American forces without a clear victory.


Military lessons

Wars need clear goals.

There was never a clear goal in Afghanistan.  It started out to kill or capture bin Laden.  Then it was to cripple al Qaeda.  Then it was to topple the Taliban.  Then it was to install a friendly government.  Then it was to turn Afghanistan into a functioning nation.  No wonder that the small military footprint that saw most of the American victories in 2001 was replaced with a military presence that was more reminiscent of the Vietnam War – without the jungle.

Americans established large military camps and carried out operations away from those bases.  It seemed that these bases had more in common with the massive facilities at Da Nang, Vietnam.

Forget clear cut goals.  For many career soldiers, going to Afghanistan was the key to promotion.  For politicians and bureaucrats, it was the statistics – numbers of Taliban killed and the amount of new investment in Afghanistan.

When presidents like Trump or Obama wanted to leave Afghanistan, there were no clear-cut reasons to stay.  Generals did not tell their leaders that staying in Afghanistan for another six months would achieve a certain goal.  Instead, they spoke of potential long range problems and outbreaks of terrorism elsewhere – very reminiscent of the “Domino Theory” given as a reason to stay in Vietnam.

The American military will pay a considerable price for its time in Afghanistan.  When the war began, it carried out an invasion on the other side of the world that no other nation could do.  It parked aircraft carriers in the Arabian Sea that launched hundreds of Special Forces into the country to assist pro-American tribes.

As the mission evolved from finding bin Laden, the shape of the military force changed.  Special Forces who worked with the tribes became less important than a large military force that could occupy large parts of the country.

Equipment priorities also changed.  American tanks were too heavy for many roads and bridges in Afghanistan, so lighter armored equipment like the Stryker was deployed.  And, as more improvised mines were encountered, mine resistant vehicles (MRAPS) were used.

There were some problems with these new vehicles.  To keep them light enough to be airmobile, their armor became so light that heavy Russian machineguns could penetrate their armored skin.  Of course, there were kits of additional armor available, but that added to the weight and kept them from being as mobile.

Military doctrine also evolved.  The Air Force did not need to establish air superiority in the sky over Afghanistan, so they focused on bombing and ground support.  Meanwhile, the Army was focused on a military designed to fight insurgencies, so they did away with the “division” concept and established brigades that could move quickly by air to a developing country with an insurgency problem.

Even the Navy has problems as it has invested in inexpensive “littoral combat” ships that are best used in low threat naval operations around countries that have insurgencies.  Some of these ships will be decommissioned early because they do not fit the Navy’s needs.

The problem now is that the Afghan War is over, and the US military finds itself with equipment and tactics far different from the conflicts they may face in the near future.

Both Russia and China are focused on establishing air superiority in any potential conflict and the wargames that US generals and admirals play show that the US may have problems controlling the air, even over its own naval task forces.

Meanwhile, the US Army has large numbers of light armored vehicles that will easily blow apart in the face of Russian main battle tanks.  They are so unfit for conventional combat that the US has started giving them to local police forces, which only allows the police to become more aggressive in the face of popular protests in parts of the US.

There is also the problem of the military personnel and their training.  Although the Afghan War has provided good combat experience for a cadre of Army and Marine soldiers, there is a big difference between breaking down the door of an Afghan family hut in search of weapons and facing Russian soldiers with more modern weapons.  Can a pilot who has spent the last ten years providing ground support to the US Army go head-to-head with a fifth-generation Russian fighter aircraft?

America’s generals have spent nearly all their careers fighting in Afghanistan.  Can they adjust to fighting a conventional war in Europe?

The Army is slowly evolving away from an insurgency mode of combat.  Last year, before the Covid epidemic, the US Army carried out a major movement of US ground forces and equipment (including main battle tanks) from the United States to Europe.  Although the movement was cut short, it did demonstrate that the military is beginning to move away from the Afghan experience.

If the US military can start preparing for the next conflict – one that will probably involve China or Russia, at least they will have learned one lesson – prepare for the next war, not the last one.

Week of April 12, 2021

Hypersonic Weapons – Fad or Fact?


At the beginning of WWII, it was tanks.  After WWII, it was nuclear weapons, bombers, and missiles.  In the past few years, it has been drones.

Now it is hypersonic missiles.  China, Russia, and the US are engaged in a race to field the first practical hypersonic missile.

According to military experts, hypersonic weapons are the latest “leading edge” technology.  Travelling at five times the speed of sound, they are harder to detect and considerably more difficult to shoot down.  Russia sees them as the answer to America’s missile defense of North America and China sees them as the “golden bullet” that will defeat America’s super carriers.

The problem, however, is that hypersonic weapons are neither new, nor do they offer anything that current technology does not offer – for less money.

Hypersonic technology is about 80 years old and was first explored as a weapon technology during WWII.  Nazi Germany, who was the leader in rocket technology at that time, had considered it when looking at ways to attack America from Germany.  The first solution was a long-range bomber, but they took time to cross the Atlantic and were vulnerable to Allied long range air patrols.

The solution was a rocket that could travel at hypersonic speeds.  The Germans conceived a hypersonic boost glide missile called the Silbervogel (Silver Bird).  The problem was its cost, compared to the size of the weapons payload.

The post WWII era saw a demand to quickly hit distant targets in the most efficient way possible.  The answer was the ICBM.  It flew a ballistic flight plan, went up to a thousand miles in space at hypersonic speeds and landed with a degree of accuracy – at least accurate for nuclear weapons.  It was also the most economical solution.

The US continued to look at hypersonic flight and developed the Dyna-Soar hypersonic glider.  The program was cancelled because of its cost and the fact that there was no clear objective to the weapon.

The fact is that hypersonic weapons use nuclear technology from the 1950s, boost technology from the 1950s, and hypersonic glide technology from the 1960s – hardly a revolutionary weapon system.

However, afraid that it will fall behind, the US is pushing to develop a hypersonic missile as quickly as possible, and with the minimal testing.  The pace of testing indicates that this week’s hypersonic missile test failure off the coast of California will not be the last one.  The missile is designed to target high value strategic targets.

The Army hopes to field its first missiles in FY 23.

The US is focusing on the Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon and the air launched AGM-183A Rapid Response Weapon.

The Defense Department plans up to 40 hypersonic missile tests in the next five years – a fast track that could lead to problems if there are any test failures.  There are also few places like hypersonic wind tunnels that can test such a weapons system.

Russia has already fielded hypersonic missiles for strategic purposes – like replacing its current ballistic missiles.  The two missile systems are the Avangard and the Kinzhal.  The Kinzhal reportedly has speeds of up to Mach 10 and a range of 1200 miles.

The Russians are also testing an air-to-surface hypersonic missile for use on the Russian SU-57 jet fighter.

The Chinese are behind and are developing a hypersonic missile with a different tactical application.  They are developing an inexpensive Mach 5 scramjet, the SF-17.  Since it is cheaper, it can be deployed in massive attacks that could overwhelm the defense systems of an American carrier task force.  It is expected to enter service in the late 2020s.

The British and French navies are working on a hypersonic missile to replace the Harpoon and Exocet anti-ship missiles.  The missile, Pursues will have a ramjet engine and is expected to enter service in 2030.

For all the optimistic talk, hypersonic weapons face an invincible foe – physics.  That is why they were considered impractical in the 20th Century,

Hypersonic weapons will launch like traditional ICBMs.  However, instead of taking a ballistic path as an ICBM, the warhead will be attached to a hypersonic glide vehicle that can ride the shockwaves created by its high speed as it flies through the atmosphere.  Unlike ICBMs, it will fly at a much lower altitude, which will be below many missile defense system envelopes.

The key is the hypersonic glide vehicle, which is quite maneuverable at hypersonic speeds.  In a long-range flight, it skips across the edge of the atmosphere until it approaches its target.  Then, it rolls over and dives into the atmosphere.  It can maneuver by rolling clockwise or counterclockwise.  It does the same in a short-range missile, except it will stay in the atmosphere.

These glide vehicles have problems though.  As they fly through the atmosphere, they are subject to atmospheric drag and temperatures of thousands of degrees.  If one were to shape the glide vehicle to reduce the drag, it loses its hypersonic glide ability.  And, although it can maneuver at hypersonic speeds, doing so drastically reduces the speed and range.  Hypersonic flight depends on a narrow band of atmospheric density and speed.

This narrow band of atmospheric density and hypersonic speed drastically limits the ability of the missile to travel faster than the conventional ballistic missile taking the traditional ballistic flight plan.  This negates the argument that hypersonic missiles are dramatically faster than conventional ICBMs.

Although these hypersonic glide vehicles are fast, the heat created leaves a heat signature that is visible to satellites from thousands of miles away.  Both the US and Russia have early warning satellites that look for large heat signatures like those from ballistic missiles.  These thermal signatures are quite visible to satellite both in the boost phase and as the glide vehicle flies through the atmosphere.  Admittedly, modern anti-missile systems may not be able to intercept these fast-moving vehicles, but they can track them.

Hypersonic weapons are also subject to the age-old physics equation; Energy equals mass times velocity squared.  If one wants to make an object that travels Mach 1 to go Mach 5, the energy needed equals 5 squared, or 25.  That means that pushing a hypersonic glide vehicle at hypersonic speeds throughout its powered flight requires 25 times more energy then moving the vehicle at Mach 1.  No wonder the engineers of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and the US moved away from hypersonic weapon technology back in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s.

The high speeds and heat incurred during its travel through the atmosphere also tests the structural integrity of the vehicle.  ICBM nosecones reach temperatures of a few hundred degrees Celsius.  Hypersonic vehicles will have skin temperatures of thousands of degrees Celsius.  Small imperfections in the skin can cause catastrophic failures.  Small pieces of shrapnel from an interceptor warhead will also cause a failure of the glide vehicle.

There is also the high temperature plasma that surrounds the glide vehicle during any high-speed flight in the atmosphere.  This is what causes the blackout with manned spacecraft reentering the atmosphere at the end of a mission.  This plasma will hinder communications and navigation.  This might preclude remote guidance changes or allow for the vehicle to use navigation satellites to make course corrections.

In the end, hypersonic flight represents a set of tradeoffs – tradeoffs that engineers felt was not worth it for several decades.  Drag forces at low altitudes reduce speed, which is only obtained by the considerable expenditure of fuel.  There are tradeoffs between speed, altitude, and maneuverability.  High speed through the atmosphere produces immense amounts of heat, which are detectable by satellites.

The key advantage of hypersonic flight is that current missile defenses cannot intercept them due to speed, flight paths that go under the envelope of defensive missile, and remarkable maneuverability.

However, as nations develop and perfect hypersonic missiles, there is another race going on to develop defenses that will negate the hypersonic missile.  Directed energy weapons and particle beams are already in the testing phase.

In the end, much depends on solving several major technological problems.  These problems were once faced by some of the greatest rocket scientists of all time, and they opted for simpler solutions.  Will this generation of scientists succeed when those others failed?

Week of April 05, 2021

US Army Europe Raises Threat Level
Over Increased Russia-Ukraine Tensions

While most of the world is focused on China, its regular incursions into Taiwanese air space, the status of unoccupied Japanese islands, and the number of Chinese boats in the South China Sea, tensions in Europe over increased fighting along the Russian-Ukrainian border has forced the US Army in Europe to increase its threat level to the highest level – “Potential Imminent Crisis.”

In the past few days, the New York Times has reported that four Ukrainian soldiers were killed and two more seriously wounded in a mortar barrage during a battle against Russian backed “separatists” in the Donetsk region.  The fighting was along the “Line of Contact” which stretches 250 miles between the two fighting forces.  Unlike much of the recent skirmishing of the past few months, this fighting included artillery fire.

This recent escalation in fighting appears to abrogate the cease fire negotiated last July.

Observers have also noticed new Russian manufactured weapons with the “separatists”.

The Ukraine Parliament issued a statement noting a “significant increase in shelling and armed provocations by the armed forces of the Russian Federation.”  They also called on Western nations to “continue and increase international political and economic pressure on Russia.”

Although fighting has been occurring for several years, there have been some recent activities that led to the US Army increasing its threat level.

A few weeks ago, the Russian military announced airborne exercises that targeted water canals supplying the Crimea from the Dnieper River in Ukraine.  The regiment sized airborne exercise was held in conjunction with Russian Black Sea Fleet amphibious exercises.  The airborne units were to seize Ukrainian objectives and set up a defensive perimeter until relieved by other Russian units, possibly Russian marines.

Most worrying for NATO has been the increase in Russian military aircraft incursions into NATO airspace.  This week, NATO fighter aircraft were scrambled 10 times within a six-hour period on Monday.  The incursions were in the Baltic Sea, North Sea, and Black Sea areas.

The incursions included TU-95 Russian bombers nearing the Norwegian coast.  After being intercepted by Norwegian F-16s, they flew south, over the North Sea, prompting the scrambling of British and Belgium fighters.

Other Russian incursions included two Russian Blackjack bombers entering Norwegian airspace, three Russian aircraft in the Black Sea, and a Russian maritime patrol over the Baltic Sea, which was intercepted by Italian aircraft.

NATO has also been concerned about the buildup of Russian military units along the Ukraine border.  Units that participated in maneuvers along the Ukraine border have not been withdrawn, eliciting allegations from Ukrainian military leaders that Russia has intentionally massed more troops on the border.  There are also unconfirmed reports that trains are moving heavy armored equipment like tanks up to the Ukrainian border.

Russia responded to these accusations with the comment, “The Russian Federation transfers the Armed Forces on its soil as it wants to.  This should not concern anyone, and this is not posing any threat to anyone.”

The US has also pushed tensions.  Biden has always been a supporter of the Ukraine and has said, “Crimea is Ukraine,” – a comment bound to infuriate the Russians and Putin, who Biden insulted recently by calling him a “killer.”

In the past few weeks, the US has also delivered 350 tons of arms to the Ukraine military.   This included at least 35 military Humvees, which are designed to carry heavy weapons like heavy machineguns, anti-tank missiles, and rapid-fire cannon.

The Ukraine military has also announced exercises in the flatlands north of the Crimea, which would be an important target in any conflict between the two nations.


Increased Threat Level

All of this caused the US Army in Europe to increase its threat level from “Possible Crisis” to “Potential Imminent Crisis,” which is its highest level.  “We’re discussing our concerns about this increase in tensions and ceasefire violations and regional tensions with our NATO allies,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters Wednesday.

In addition, US Secretary of State Blinken called his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kulbea.  And, US Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, called top military leaders in both Russia and Ukraine – Russian General Gerasimov and Ukraine General Khomchak.

How the change in threat status impacts US forces in Europe is a closely held military secret.  This type of threat level is quite different than those caused by a terrorist threat.  Terrorist threats focus on force protection (limiting access to military bases and protecting personnel) instead of a response to an external conventional military threat by another country.

However, we can deduce some of the possible responses by American forces in Europe to this increased threat.

Increased manning of headquarters and communications commands.  Many headquarters and communications commands work at a peacetime level on a regular basis.  However, as the watch level has increased, it is likely that manning will be increased during the higher threat level.  Liberty may be cancelled, which will have an impact as this weekend is the high point of Holy Week activities.

Alternate headquarters and communications locations may also be activated.

Larger number of aircraft put on alert.  It is normal routine for NATO air forces to have several alert aircraft on standby in order to intercept Russian military aircraft entering NATO airspace.  However, given the higher watch level, more aircraft will probably be put on the highest alert status.  There is also the possibility that some of the aircraft may be deployed to other airfields for security purposes.

Weapon loads for the alert aircraft may also be modified.

One theater where the alert status of NATO aircraft will be higher will be in the Baltic nations of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.  NATO regularly keeps squadrons in these nations to discourage Russian aircraft incursions.

Dispersion of ground forces.  Military ground forces that are near Russia may be ordered to leave their bases and to disperse in the countryside, especially in strategic areas near borders.  This prevents a surprise attack on the forces and leaves them well placed in case of invasion.

As we noted with NATO aircraft, the likeliest theater where military dispersion will take place is in the Baltic nations.

Activate air and missile defenses.  This is most likely in areas around Russia.

Increased airborne and satellite-based reconnaissance.  The focus will be on units that appear to be moving closer to the Ukraine border.  If Russian railroads are moving heavy armor to the border, intelligence can judge the potential threat.

Putting rapid response forces on alert.  If the situation deteriorates, moving a rapid response force into the theater can show the Russians that NATO is willing to defend its territory and interests.  In addition to units in Europe, there is also the possibility that airborne units of the 82nd and 101st airborne divisions may be deployed.


Are NATO, Russia and the Ukraine overreacting to the crisis?

Although there has been fighting between Russia and Ukraine for several years, is the current situation that critical?  Some analysts say no.

Retired Lieutenant General Fredrick Hodges is the former commander of the US Army in Europe.  He says, “This could be posturing, but the Kremlin is testing the new Administration.”  He continues that Russia has no interest in real peace in the Ukraine and wants to keep the country destabilized.

That, however, could be a viewed as an escalation by Putin.  Biden has a record of supporting the Ukraine since his time as Vice President and was influential in increasing military aid to the Ukraine from non-lethal aid to high tech weapons like the Javelin anti-tank missile.

The American embassy in Kiev has also taken a strong stand.  A statement from the embassy said that the US was, “Deeply saddened by the deaths of four Ukrainian soldiers today due to shelling near Shumy, Donetsk.  Russia must observe ceasefire measures, end daily violence that is causing senseless suffering, engage constructively in peace negotiations, and end its aggression in Ukraine.”

American Defense Secretary Austin spoke to Ukraine’s defense minister on Thursday and expressed “unwavering US support for Ukraine’s sovereignty.”

Although it is easy to downplay this as posturing, repeated Russian military aircraft incursions, military maneuvers, and the recent history of invading the Crimea and supporting “separatists” in Eastern Ukraine demonstrate that there is a potential for miscalculation and escalation.

Anyone who thinks that there is no chance of a crisis which will escalate into open conflict may want to remember the beginning of WWI.  The assassination of the Hapsburg heir and the future Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in Sarajevo, was not considered a major international incident.  The Archduke’s liberal politics and marriage to the Duchess Sophie made him unpopular in the royal family.  His removal from the Hapsburg’s line of succession was welcomed by many.

However, many of the same people who did not like Franz Ferdinand wanted to use the Archduke’s death for political and territorial gain in the Balkans.  The result was a major bloodbath in Europe.

Week of March 30, 2021

Maritime Chokepoints and their Influence on World History
Why the closing of the Suez Canal means a lot?

“Yet, by 1706, instead of seeing the navy of France riding upon our coast, we sent every year a powerful fleet to insult theirs, superior to them not only in the ocean, but in the Mediterranean, forcing them entirely out of that sea by the mere sight of our Flag.”

On the impact of capturing Gibraltar
The Influence of Sea Power upon History
By Alfred T. Mahan

300 years ago, the War of Spanish Succession was to have a major impact on the history of Europe and the influence of British naval power.  In return for being allowed to have a king from the Royal House of Bourbon, Spain ceded ownership of Gibraltar, which controlled the western entrance to the Mediterranean, to the British.

300 year later, Spain has a king from the Royal House of Bourbon, King Felipe VI, and Britain still controls Gibraltar.  And, if anyone thinks that control of the Strait of Gibraltar does not mean anything in today’s modern world, they only must look back to 2019, when British Commandos launching from Gibraltar captured an Iranian tanker bringing oil to a Syrian refinery.

Alfred Mahan’s book, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660 – 1783 is considered the greatest book written on naval strategy.  Kaiser Wilhelm ordered his naval officers to read it and it impacted Germany’s push to build a large surface fleet before WWI.

President Theodore Roosevelt read it and wrote to Mahan calling it a “naval classic.”  As president, he used the principles in the book to reconfigure the American Navy to become a major naval power – the main reason one of the most powerful warships in the world, the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt is named after him.

Ironically, the USS Theodore Roosevelt is currently in the South China Sea facing off against the Chinese navy, which also uses the naval principles of Mahan too.

The Influence of Sea Power upon History focused on how geography determined the commercial maritime influence and naval power of nations.  And, with the shipping accident in the Suez Canal, we see how the geography of maritime chokepoints can seriously impact maritime shipping and projection of naval power.

It is estimated that 90% of the world’s trade is transported by sea and the major maritime link between Europe and Asia goes through the Suez Canal.  In 2019, 19,000 ships carrying 1.25 billion tons of shipping went through the Suez Canal between Europe and Asia via the Suez Canal.  13% of the world’s trade is expected to be hampered by this accident.  Ships that will have to head around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope will need an extra 15 days to make the trip.

But the Ever Given accident isn’t just a civilian maritime problem.  It has caused a major problem for the US Navy, which has ordered a team of American naval personnel to travel to Egypt to help solve the problem.

At a time of increased tension between China and the US, the Suez blockage has seriously impacted the ability of the US to reinforce its fleet off China.  The aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower is currently in the Mediterranean and was scheduled to transit the Suez to carry out exercises in the Arabian Sea.  It was also tasked to be reinforcement in the South China Sea, if conditions called for it.  Although the USS Ronald Reagan is stationed in Japan, the USS Eisenhower would be likely to arrive on station in the South China Sea before the Reagan could finish scheduled repairs and modernization and set sail.

For centuries, naval officers have known that controlling the oceans is too big a task.  Therefore, control of the seas requires controlling chokepoints.  Some of the critical ones are the Strait of Gibraltar, Strait of Hormuz, Suez Canal, Panama Canal, English Channel, Malacca Strait, Strait of Bab al Mandab, and the Taiwan Strait.

There are several reasons why controlling one of these chokepoints is critical.  First, it allows a nation to control maritime shipping – allowing the movement of friendly shipping, while restricting the shipping of the enemy.  This has been the primary use of Gibraltar.  Over the last 300 years, it has restricted commercial shipping of nations like France during the Napoleonic Wars.

Second, it allows a small naval force to stop the movement of an enemy naval force through the chokepoint.  During WWII, the English Channel and the British Navy were able to prevent a German invasion of that island nation.

Finally, a chokepoint is an ideal place to carry out an amphibious invasion.  In 1944, the Allies were able to use the narrow seas between France and England to launch the D-Day landings in Normandy.

The most important chokepoint in terms of commercial traffic is the Malacca Strait.  It is the main shipping channel between the Indian and Pacific oceans.  94,000 ships pass through the strait each year and it carries about 25% of the world’s traded goods.  It carries about one quarter of the oil from the Middle East to Asian countries.

The amount of traffic also makes the strait highly congested.  Near the south of the strait, the channel narrows to only 2.8 kilometers wide.  On August 20th, 2017, the US Navy warship USS John McCain collided with the merchant ship Alnic MC, leading to the death of 10 American sailors.  Eventually the blame was placed on the US ship and the lack of training of its bridge crew.

In terms of potential threat, there is nothing that is considered more critical than the Strait of Hormuz.  It is the only passage to the open sea for several oil producing nations.  35% of the world’s oil tanker traffic passes through the strait, of which 85% goes to Asian markets.  There is currently new tension between Israel and Iran concerning several explosions onboard their shipping.

The Strait of Hormuz is currently patrolled by a multinational naval task force.  Currently the French nuclear aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle is the capital ship of the force.

Like the Suez Cannel, the Panama Canal is manmade and very vulnerable to breakdowns.  In 2016, larger locks were built to allow larger shipping to transit the canal.

Although the Panama Canal remains a critical chokepoint, some ships from Asia stop at American Pacific ports and allow the cargo to be transported to the East Coast by rail.

The Taiwan Strait has been a historic strategic chokepoint.  In WWII, Japanese maritime trade used it as a protected passage from the islands in the south and the Japanese Islands.  Cutting the supply of oil and raw materials from its colonies of Indonesia (Dutch East Indies) was considered so important that America debated whether Taiwan or the Philippines should be invaded.

The Taiwan Strait remains of strategic importance as it would be the route of a Chinese amphibious assault against Taiwan.

The Bosporus separates Europe and Asia as well as the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.   It has a long history in terms of invasions between Europe and Asia.  The ancient Greeks got their grain from Black Sea ports and the Persians invaded Greece across the Bosporus several times.  Its importance caused Roman emperor Constantine the Great to establish Constantinople (Modern Istanbul) there.  It was subject to the largest amphibious invasions during WWI (Gallipoli).

The Bosporus has been a long-term strategic goal of Russia as it has always been desirous of a warm water port that does not freeze in the winter.

The English Channel is an arm of the Atlantic Ocean and is the busiest shipping area in the world.  Its narrowest point is the Strait of Dover, which is only 21 miles.  It has been the “moat” that has protected England from invasion since the last successful invasion in 1066 by William the Conqueror.  Since then, it has stopped the Spanish Armada, Napoleon, and Hitler.

Gibraltar is the gate from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.  Much of the maritime traffic that goes through the Suez Canal transits the Strait of Gibraltar and goes to northern European ports like Hamburg.

As the capture of the Iranian oil tanker proved, Gibraltar still has strategic significance.  It monitors Russian submarine movements in the Mediterranean by tracking submarines that leave the port of Murmansk and then transit the strait while submerged.  It remains a Royal Navy port and is frequently used as a training area and a stopover for units, ships, and aircraft heading east of the Suez Canal.

There are hundreds of chokepoints for local and limited maritime traffic.  However, an accident like that in the Suez Canal, or war can make anyone of them important.

One such chokepoint that only had importance for a couple of years in WWII was in the Solomon Islands.  During the Battle of Guadalcanal and later amphibious landings by American Marines, the channel between the islands would be called “The Slot.”  Allied and Japanese warships would battle regularly over control of these waters and so many ships would be sunk in the waters that it would later gain the name of “Iron Bottom Sound.”

So, while some chokepoints like the Strait of Gibraltar will remain chokepoints over the centuries, we can never be sure what the next critical piece of ocean will be.

Week of March 22, 2021

America, China, and Taiwan – A Potential Tinderbox?


At a time when Chinese American relations are at their lowest ebb since the Tiananmen Square Crisis, the US and China met in Alaska to try to resolve some of their issues, which include trade, intellectual property issues, human right abuses in China with the Uighur minority population, abrogating the human rights treaty with the UK on Hong Kong, the South China Sea, border issues with India, and the status of Taiwan.

In addition to several high ranking Chinese officials, the meeting included US Secretary of State Blinken and National Security Advisor Sullivan.

Before Alaska, Blinken and Austin met with the Japanese, who “condemned China’s aggressive international moves”.  Austin then headed off to India, which also has territorial issues with the Chinese – issues that led to skirmishes along their border with China.

However, for all the hope of the Alaska meeting, the talks were described as “frosty.”  China’s attitude was outlined by a foreign Ministry spokesman, who said, “China will take strong measures as appropriate to resolutely defend national sovereignty, security, and development issues.

The US responded by placing sanctions on 24 Chinese and Hong Kong officials.

Of all the issues to be discussed, the most explosive appears to be Taiwan, or the Republic of China, as it bills itself.  China considers it a breakaway province, while the Taiwanese consider themselves a sovereign nation.  And, although the US has diplomatic relations with mainland China, it has guaranteed, by treaty, that a Chinese invasion will elicit an American military response.

The US is also the major weapons supplier to Taiwan.

Many observers have been surprised that the Biden Administration has indicated it will continue with the tough stance on Taiwan’s independence. “War over Taiwan would be unthinkable” said Eric Sayers of the American Enterprise Institute.  “The [Chinese Army’s] capabilities have now matured to such a degree that this is no longer a dilemma we can afford to push off.”

A Pentagon official told Politico that, “China has built a global sized navy for a regional mission…we just don’t have the same kind of capabilities against China that we used to because of numbers.”

However, a strong response is needed.  As the Politico noted, “the US can’t afford to do nothing.”

The seriousness of the Chinese challenge was highlighted by documents that show that in a conflict with China over Taiwan, the US would lose.  The war games suppose a massive military Chinese exercise that would hide the deployment of an invasion force.  Missile and biological strikes against US bases and warships would paralyze the US while the Chinese carry out an amphibious assault on Taiwan.

The US forces would lose with a serious number of casualties amongst manpower and weapons systems.

Lt. General Hinote told Yahoo in an interview, that the US was, “Not just losing, but we were losing faster…After the 2018 war game, I distinctly remember one of our gurus of war gaming standing in front of the Air force secretary and chief of staff and telling them that we should never play this war game scenario [of a Chinese attack on Taiwan] again, because we know what is going to happen.  The definitive answer if the US military doesn’t change course is that we’re going to lose fast.”

In Senate testimony, the head of the US Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Phil Davidson warned that China might try to annex Taiwan this decade – possibly within the next six years.

Without releasing the results of the war games, the Trump Administration took action by increasing naval patrols through the Taiwan Strait, not to stop any invasion, but to illustrate the American determination to defend Taiwan.

The US military has also initiated a program called the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, for which they are requesting $4.6 billion for this next year.  It will increase the number of ground-based cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, and hypersonic missiles in areas close to China.  The US Marine Corps has also completed construction of the first permanent base in the Indi-Pacific region since 1952.  The military is also improving its ability to quickly build military airfields on islands much like the US did during the island-hopping campaigns in the Pacific in WWII.

There are also plans for other bases that will be close to the “First Island Chain” near China.

More important was the increased supply of American arms to Taiwan – a move that was supported by both the Republicans and Democrats since a stronger Taiwanese military reduces the risk for the US.

The arms sold to Taiwan were designed to enhance Taiwan’s ability to withstand a Chinese invasion.  In fact, over $5 billion in arms were sold to Taiwan in 2020.

To stop a Chinese amphibious assault on the island, the US sold 100 Harpoon coastal defense systems.  These are the state-of-the-art missiles, and the type II Harpoons are designed specifically for littoral anti-ship capability, which is ideal for an engagement in the Taiwan Strait.  They have improved targeting and better anti-electronic countermeasures abilities.  Since they are designed to fly close to the surface of the water, they are harder to detect and defeat.

Taiwan also purchased in 2020 the standoff land mobile rocket artillery systems, which can be used against any Chinese land forces that have landed on the island.  They are also effective against stationary ships offloading soldiers.

Taiwan also purchased the Mk-48 submarine launched torpedo, which would make it harder for Chinese amphibious ships to transit the strait.

In 2019, Taiwan purchased Stinger man-portable missiles that have a well-documented record against Russian and Chinese aircraft.  They also bought over 100 M-1 Abrams tanks, which would make it difficult for the Chinese to maintain any foothold on the island.

Probably most important, the Trump Administration and the Congress approved the sale of 66 F-16 fighters.  These are the same aircraft that the US is currently purchasing, and the Taiwanese versions have a low radar cross section and improved electronics.  They are the main fighter for the Taiwanese air force and are frequently used to intercept Chinese aircraft flying too close to Taiwan.  They would make it difficult for the Chinese to maintain air superiority, a prerequisite for covering an amphibious operation, especially since the F-16s would be operating over their own territory and would have longer loiter times than the Chinese fighters.

This will give Taiwan over 200 modern fighters to China’s 600.  The Chinese J-11 is its most modern fighter and is based on the Russian Sukhoi SU-27 fighter, which was introduced in 1984.  Russia intends to replace the SU-27 with the SU-57 fifth generation fighter.

The Chinese J-20 fifth generation fighter aircraft are entering the Chinese air force in small numbers (20 so far) and, with their stealth capability, would be a part of any attempt to invade Taiwan.

However, the Chinese military has weaknesses that are frequently ignored.  The Chinese air force is designed for air superiority.  It has no close air support ability, which would be critical for a land war on Taiwan.  This implies that the Chinese do not see a conventional war with opposing armies.  Their assumption is that surface to surface ballistic missiles, bombers, and the neutralization of American forces in the region would cause the Taiwanese to capitulate without fighting.

The Chinese also lack a precision bomber strike ability and rely on conventional ballistic missiles without stealth capability.

The Chinese don’t have much satellite reconnaissance capability, which means they rely on ground and air-based systems that can be easier to take out.

China has few 5th generation stealth aircraft and would be hard pressed to get into an arms race with the US.  The US has about 500 5th generation fighters and is producing about 40 more a year.  They are also selling them to allies like Japan, Britain, Australia, and South Korea that could very well join the US in any conflict with China.

The ability of the F-35 to penetrate modern air defenses was proven with the report that three Israeli F-35s flew to Tehran and back in 2018. It was claimed that the mission led to the firing of the Iranian air force chief.

So, is the US and Taiwan that vulnerable?  May be not.  The US has been too focused on the Middle East in the past and is now more focused on China as the Pacific Deterrence Initiative demonstrates.  In the most recent war game, the US tested some Pacific Deterrence Initiative concepts and forced the Pentagon’s “Red Team leader” to forego an attack because there was too much uncertainty.

The strategy that stymied the Red Team leader, focused on long range anti-ship missiles (remember the sale of Harpoon missiles to Taiwan), mobile rocket artillery systems (another Taiwanese purchase), and surface to air missile batteries (They have the Patriot missile system and are buying man-portable missiles too).  There was also more focus on surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities to give policy makers more information faster.

In the end, the US posture (along with Taiwan’s upgraded military capabilities) was able to create enough uncertainty to make it unprofitable to invade Taiwan.

Which also answers why the results of a secret war game was released.  The US is recalibrating its military from operations in the Middle East to more conventional operations around China and Russia.  Releasing the results of the war games will provide the information to encourage Congress to redirect defense spending.

In the short run, that may be the only way to discourage Chinese ambitions in Asia.

Week of March 16, 2021

The Mirage of Artificial Intelligence


Long before computers, man was dreaming of intelligent machines that could fight a war.  In fact, H. G. Wells’ book, “The War of the Worlds” envisioned such machines, produced by Martians, conquering humans.

Military men still dream of war machines driven by artificial intelligence (AI).  However, the dream remains just that – a dream.  Even as computer technology improves, scientists discover that the concept of intelligence is more complicated than imagined and that merging such technology with a lethal machine is a recipe for disaster.

In fact, the idea of what artificial intelligence is has evolved over the decades.  The first step was defining a set of rules for computers like, if it is raining, bring an umbrella.  In a wartime setting, that could mean if someone is wearing an enemy uniform, shoot him.

This type of AI technology is common in tax programs.

The second step was replicating higher order human thinking skills like problem solving.  This would be like a drone detecting a person and then using its problem-solving skills to determine if it is an enemy – like the person does not have a uniform, but is in enemy occupied territory, is a young male and is pointing a weapon at you.  However, does the response change if it is a young female pointing the weapon?

The third wave will attempt to merge these technologies.  However, much remains to be solved.  True artificial intelligence requires merging machine learning, symbolic reasoning, statistical learning, search and planning, data, cloud infrastructure, and algorithms.  Even with high order computing, scientists find the problems immense.

There is also the question; can a machine replicate the human calculation for waging war – either in something as simple as a drone or as complex as a computer in a headquarters?

Probably not.

Here are some of the problems:

How do we develop the right algorithms and thinking processes for military AI?

The reality is that who we are determines how we think and solve a problem.  And that can determine the eventual answer and the likelihood that the answer is right.

One algorithm problem that faced the Navy decades ago was to develop an algorithm that could compute the cost of warships before they were built.  One algorithm branch took the engineering direction and postulated that the cost of the warship was determined by the cost of all the components – propulsion, radar, electronics, etc.  The problem was that most Navy ships include new technology that has not been fully matured during the planning phase, i.e., how do you determine the cost of a new technology propulsion system that only exists on the drawing board?

Another algorithm took an economics path.  Rather than determine the cost of each component in the warship, it used the principles of supply and demand – determining cost by how much more efficient the new warship was than the current design.

The economics algorithm was an unpopular answer for the engineers at the Naval Systems Command.  They did not understand the thinking behind that solution and opted for the engineering route, even though the economics algorithm produced more accurate data.

The author of the algorithms has an overwhelming impact on the AI.  In military AI, how the machine thinks will depend on who designs it.  Is the AI developer a software engineer without military experience, a military man with desert fighting experience against militants, a military man with experience in conventional war, a counterinsurgency specialist, or an anti-war activist?

AI also has problems adjusting to the differing behaviors of its opponent.  An example can be found in DARPA’s attempt to develop driverless vehicles.  Engineers quickly discovered that how drivers react in different parts of the United States impacted how the computer would react.

In the Great Plains like the State of Minnesota, drivers are much more courteous and let other drivers merge easily on busy roads.  However, in New York City, where drivers are more aggressive, they do not allow other drivers to merge in heavy traffic.

The result was that a Minnesota programmed automated driving vehicle would be unable to operate in New York City, where a degree of aggressiveness is required.

The same problem occurs in AI military technology.  A Russian officer trained in conventional warfare and modern military equipment will react differently than another commander in another country who has poorly trained soldiers and obsolete equipment.

All warfare also requires flexibility.  However, can AI rapidly recognize a potential problem that has not occurred yet and rapidly come up with another plan?  This is something that makes great generals stand out from their contemporaries.

One example was General Patton’s decision to rotate his army 90 degrees to drive into the German flank at the Battle of the Bulge despite the logistical problems it presented.  AI might very well have opted for the conventional solution, which the other Allied generals recommended, but took longer.  The result of Patton’s initiative was a quick relief of the town of Bastogne by Patton’s subordinate, General Abrams (for whom the American tank, the M-1 Abrams Tank is named for).

However, a daring AI program can be equally disastrous.  In Operation Market Garden in 1944, British General Montgomery tried to use a Patton like strategy to outflank the German defenses.  The result was a costly operation that failed in its goal to cross the Rhine and outflank the Siegfried Line.

This brings up another problem with military AI – some types of AI might be better than others in certain situations.

General Erwin Rommel was a master of desert warfare, who ran rings around the British, in North Africa, even though he had a smaller army.  Yet, his strategy to defeat the Allies at the invasion of Normandy was criticized by many senior German generals (including Field Marshal von Rundstedt) and was to prove inadequate in the end.

AI, like many generals, also tend to focus on tangibles rather than intangibles.  Undoubtedly in May 1940 AI would have looked at British and French tank quality and numbers and forecast that they would have easily defeated the Germans.  It would have discounted General Manstein’s plan to strike through the dense Ardennes Forest with obsolete tanks.

Would an American AI overestimate US weapons capability and underestimate the enemies?

Would “expertise” overrule that brilliance that military geniuses have?   The operational commander of the two critical naval battles on WWII in the Pacific was Admiral Fletcher, a surface fleet admiral who had no real experience in fighting an aircraft carrier battle.  However, Fletcher won both battles and the US Navy was able to claim naval supremacy in the Pacific.

Would AI programmers pick Fletcher’s problem-solving processes over Admiral Halsey, who had experience in aircraft carrier operations and would have commanded the task forces if he had not been ill? Probably not.

Since differing AI algorithms can come up with differing solutions, how would this problem be resolved?  How would a General Patton AI interface with an AI that focuses on military logistics?  Would one of the AIs be “senior” or would the system try to come up with a compromise – a sort of General Eisenhower AI.

Although the military speaks confidently about AI, they have come no closer to a practical solution than they did 40 years ago.

“We’re in the very early days of a very long history of continued very rapid development in the AI field,” said William Scherlis, director of the Information Innovation Office at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.  He was speaking at a virtual panel discussion at the Defense One Genius Machines 2021 summit.

Artificial Intelligence remains a mirage – just on the horizon, but out of reach.  Whether the AI is linked to a smart weapon, or a strategic computer that is found at the general’s side, the problems remain too great for anyone to rely upon them.  The fate of nations and innocent victims rely too much upon them.

The Art of War is just that – an art.  Very few men have mastered it – Napoleon Bonaparte, The Duke of Wellington, George Patton, Erwin Rommel, Gustavus Adolphus, and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson had the brilliance to win battles and wars.  The idea that a lesser man can develop a military artificial intelligence to mimic them remains difficult to believe.

Week of March 03, 2021

The World of Drones


The increased use of drone warfare globally is raising the issue of the proliferation of drones.  Several countries have agreed to set out international standards for the use of military drones.  However, some of the major producers of drones refuse to sign on.

Although the focus is on large drones like the armed Reaper and Global Hawk drones that can carry missiles, there are many others made by many companies around the world.  In fact, over 90 countries use drones in their military – usually for tactical reconnaissance.  However, over a dozen possess and have employed armed military drones that can take out a target.

One drone technology that has been ignored in the reporting on drones is the micro drone.  One example is the 1” x 4” Black Hornet that is used by British soldiers to look over walls and around corners in Afghanistan.  They are made by the Norwegian company Prox, can fly for up to 25 minutes on one charge of its battery, and transmit images up to a mile away.

One weakness of the micro drone is that it is extremely sensitive to wind.  Obviously, its size also limits the payload.  Larger drone can operate in higher winds and can carry more batteries and sensing devices.

Small tactical drones like the French FULMAR can fly for 12 hours and travel up to 90 kilometers.  They are launched by a soldier throwing them into the air much like a toy glider.

Small tactical drones are generally used for intelligence, target acquisition, surveillance, and reconnaissance.  The preferred US small tactical drone is the Raven.

The “Work Horses” of the drone fleet is the medium sized reconnaissance drone.  These are the high endurance drones that can operate either at high or medium altitude.

An example of this class of drone is the Heron, made by Israeli Aerospace Industries.  It has a wingspan of over 16 meters and can fly for up to 52 hours at an altitude of 35,000 feet – the same altitude as commercial jetliners.

The Israeli Heron has been purchased by Germany, the US, Canada, India, Turkey, Australia, and Morocco. Some unconfirmed reports suggest Gulf states acquisitions.

Another drone that has many hours of duty in nations like Afghanistan and Kosovo, is the German LUNA.  It only has a range of 100 kilometers.  Germany, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan have it in their arsenal.

The drones that are best known are the large combat and surveillance drones.  These can be operated by operators thousands of miles away and use difficult to intercept satellite communications.  Their payload can include air-to-surface missiles and laser guided bombs.  They can travel over a thousand miles and have flight times over 14 hours.  Two examples are the American Predator and Reaper.

These drones also have non-military applications like communications interception.  They can scan mobile phone calls and locate targeted individuals or groups.

Several NATO nations like Spain, France, Britain, and the Netherlands own the American made Reaper.

China has a Reaper rival that looks similar.  It is the CH-4 and it has been purchased by Egypt and Iraq.

As impressive as these large drones are, they are expensive.  The Global Hawk costs $131 million apiece.  That does not include the infrastructure costs that include building a facility that can launch, recover, and maintain such a large complex machine.  It also includes a complex command control facility that can control the drone via satellite – a satellite that (obviously) belongs to the country operating the drone.


Countries with Armed Drones

The drones that elicit the most concern are the drones capable of being armed.  Only about three dozen countries have drones that are capable of being armed.

The biggest is the United States, which carried out its first drone strikes in 2001 in Afghanistan.  They currently have several armed drones and are a major exporter of drones.

Israel does not publicly acknowledge that it has armed drones, but there are several reports that they have been used.  They have been employing them since 2004, but first produced them in the 1990s.

The United Kingdom purchased the Reaper drone from the US in 2007 and armed them in 2008.  They have armed their drone (now called the Protector) with domestically produced Brimstone 2 missiles.  The UK has also worked with Israel to create the Watchkeeper tactical drone.

Iran has been producing drones since2010.  Their current armed drone is the Shahed 129. Recently, as last week Iran unveiled its new Kaman-22 drone, which seems modeled on the U.S. -made MQ-1 Preditor, with other features from the more advanced MQ-9 Reaper.

The UAE has drones from several nations, including the US and China.  They purchased the Predator drone from the US in 2013.  They also have a domestically produced drone that was first flown in 2013.

China has several armed drones.  In 2013, they tested a stealth armed drone called the Sharp Sword.  They have several armed drones including the CH-3, Wing Loong 1, Wing Loong 2, and the CH-4.


Best Combat Drones

It is difficult to name the best combat drones because different countries have differing operational needs.  In addition, some drones are still secret, and many have not been in combat yet.  The ones in this article have had operational experience under combat conditions and are recognized by experts as the top five drones.

Russia’s S-70 Okhnik.  This drone was produced by the aircraft design firm Sukhoi in 2018.  It looks much like America’s B-2 bomber and is made of stealth materials to make it invisible to radar.

The Okhnik can carry low altitude anti-ship missiles like the subsonic X-35.  It can carry 4 supersonic missiles like the X-74M2 or 8 bombs.

Turkish Bayratar TB2. This is a tactical medium altitude drone with a long flight duration.  Some of the design copied the Israeli Heron drones purchased from Israel.  It can fly for over 24 hours.

Although designed for surveillance, the Bayratar can carry two anti-tank missiles and laser guided ammunition.  It supposedly can drop a bomb within a 3-meter square target.

American MQ-9 Reaper (Predator).  This design has been in operation since 2003.  It can carry up to 14 Hellfire missiles in one configuration.  It can carry two laser  guided Paveway missiles.

It can remain airborne for up to 14 hours.

This drone has considerable operational time in the Middle East, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq.  It has reduced the need for F-16 manned aircraft.

Israeli Heron.  This surveillance drone can remain airborne for up to 45 hours and can operate for most of its mission without an operator.  It was used in the Gaza Strip in 2008 – 2009.

The French have modified the Heron to create the Eagle drone.

American GASS Avenger (Predator C).  This drone was produced by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GASS).  It can carry up to 1,000 kg of weapons or electronics.  It was designed to operate off aircraft carriers.

It has improved stealth protection and presents a smaller heat signature.  It is designed for communications with satellites but is opaque to lower frequencies that are used by missiles and aircraft.  It has many stealth technologies copied from the F-22 and F-35 aircraft.


Defending from Drone Attacks

A constant of military technology is that for every advancement made, a countermeasure is soon developed.  It is the same for drones.

Anti-Drone tactics are not new.  On December 4, 2011, a RQ-170 Sentinel crashed into the Iranian countryside.  Iran claimed its electronic warfare unit brought the plane down. The Pentagon said the aircraft was flying over western Afghanistan and crashed near or in Iran.

However, the drone was found 140 miles inside Iran’s borders.  Although the US dismissed the idea of Iran’s military having the technology to down one the most sophisticated drones in the world, it appears the Iranians Sflight. Dailytech.com later reported.

According to them, by using its knowledge of the GPS frequency, Iran initiated its ‘electronic ambush’ by jamming the drone’s communications frequencies, forcing it into autopilot.  According to a GPS expert, ‘By putting noise (jamming) on the communications, you force the bird into autopilot. This is where the bird loses its brain.’

“The team then use a technique known as ‘spoofing’ — sending a false signal for the purposes of obfuscation or other gain.  In this case the signal in questions was the GPS feed, which the drone commonly acquires from several satellites.  By spoofing the GPS feed, Iranian officials were able to convince it that it was in Afghanistan, close to its home base.  At that point, the drone’s autopilot automatically kicked in and triggered the landing.  But rather than landing at a U.S. military base, the drone was captured at an Iranian military landing zone.

Obviously the Iranians had acquired the complex ability to give the drone the proper forged distance and find an appropriate altitude landing strip to make sure the drone landed as it did in Afghanistan.

Drones are not only vulnerable to spoofing, but their communications can also be jammed, which would probably end its mission by forcing the drone to return to its home base.  Already, some vulnerable parts of the US like the White House and Capitol are guarded from drone attacks by sophisticated electronic countermeasures.

Lasers are also seen as a potential protection against drones.  Some systems are already in operation that can damage sensitive drone systems; however, more powerful laser weapons are in the works.

The US Army appears to be developing a laser weapon that is “a million times stronger” than anything ever used before.  The new weapon will deliver a short burst for a quadrillionth of a second that vaporizes a drone or other projectile.  It is called the Ultrashort Pulsed Laser (UPSL) and can also destroy electronics by acting as an electromagnetic pulse weapon (EMP).

High energy lasers with energy levels of over 100 kilowatts are expected to be used with the 6th generation fighter.

A prototype model of the UPSL could be ready next year.  This was a major project under the Trump Administration, but there is no clear signal from the Biden Administration about its future.

Obliviously, as past military history shows, drones are the weapon of today, but may be the obsolete weapon of tomorrow.

Week of February 23, 2021

The Future of the Republican Party


“The report of my death was an exaggeration.”
Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain)

This famous quote by American humorist Samuel Clemens could apply equally to the Republican Party.  While reports circulated about the death of the GOP as Trump left Washington and talked about running for president again, the party of Lincoln still had a lot of life in it.

The fact was that the Republican Party did well in November, except for the Senate (which experts predicted would go Democratic instead of being tied) and the presidency.

Republicans seriously narrowed the Democratic margin in the House.  According to the Associated Press on January 22nd, Democrats control only 222 seats, just four seats above the 218 seats needed to have a majority.  That means if midterm elections follow history and the party in power loses seats, the House of Representatives will be Republican in two years.

According to the Cook Political Report, at the state level, Republicans did well, which gives them control of the redistricting and gives them a better chance to win more House seats in 2022.  This was despite the hundreds of millions spent by Democrats to gain a bigger foothold in the states.

While Delaware, Washington, and North Carolina elected Democrat governors; Indiana, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Utah, Vermont, and West Virginia went Republican. Montana switched from Democrat to Republican with the result that Republicans control 27 of 50 governorships.  The Montana win also gives Republicans total control of Montana, since Republicans already control the state legislature.

The New Hampshire State Senate and State Legislature flipped to Republican after going Democratic in 2018.  With its new Republican governor Sununu, it means New Hampshire is now in GOP hands,

It appears currently, of the 99 state legislative bodies in the US (Nebraska has only one legislative body), that the Republican Party controls 62 legislative bodies, while the Democrats now control 37 (a loss of two by the Democrats).  Republicans also gained in seats held in several states.  In heavily Democratic Maine, the GOP gained six seats in the state legislature.

In Iowa, Republicans expanded their majority control of their legislature.  Republicans in Pennsylvania gained seats in both the legislature and state senate.  North Carolina saw the GOP retain control of both state senate and legislature.

In Texas, Democrats gained only one senate seat.  Both legislative chambers remain Republican, as well as the Texas governorship.

This is hardly the record of a party in decline.  However, it does show a change that may predict future Republican and Democratic gains and losses.

For decades, the criticism of the Republican Party was that they were too focused on the presidency.  While Republicans did well in winning the White House in the post ww2 period, they had no control over the Supreme Court, Senate, most states, and House, which remained Democratic for decades.

This has changed.  The Republicans control most of state governors and legislatures but are at a disadvantage at the federal level.  The reality today is that the Republicans control the states, while the Democrats control the federal government in Washington.

This dichotomy explains much.  While Trump is disliked by many (including some Republicans) in Washington DC, he remains popular with many Republicans outside of Washington.

Some in the Republican Party discovered this in the past few weeks.  Liz Cheney, the Republican Representative from Wyoming voted to impeach Trump for the events on January 6th, only to be censured by Republicans in Wyoming.  Ironically, this censure was of the third ranking Republican in the House and a woman who was a rising star in the Republican Party.

At this time, 107 Republican congressmen (many of the Republicans in the House) have indicated that they support removing her from the leadership role for her impeachment vote.

Cheney is not the only one to face censure back home.  Senate Minority Leader Senator McConnell has also been censured by Republicans back in Kentucky for his comments about Trump and impeachment.

Since Trump remains popular with many Republicans, any senator supporting Trump’s conviction could be risking their Senate career.  Given that and the serious constitutional issues surrounding the impeachment and conviction of a former president, it is unlikely that the Senate will vote to convict or that the courts will uphold the conviction as constitutional.  In fact, with legislation like the stimulus bill awaiting an impeachment trial in the Senate, voters (who are not in favor of impeachment and want Congress to address real problems) will punish senators for taking time for this endeavor.

The reality is that Trump is unlikely to run for president again.  He is currently 74 and will be 78 when the next presidential election is held – the same age as Biden when he took the oath of office.  Since there were many criticisms of Biden over his age and mental capacity, a 2024 Trump presidential campaign would run into the same problems.  In fact, Democrats will likely remind voters of Trump’s comments on Biden’s age and mental health.

Trump is more likely to play to his strengths – money and organizing.  He has already indicated that he wants to campaign for clean elections and provide support for Republicans who back his agenda.  He is also expected to raise money for Republican candidates by speaking at local events.

With Trump’s loss, there are many who are looking towards the 2024 presidential election.  However, those who criticized Trump over the last four years like Romney are unlikely to find it an easy road.  Voters will remember those candidates who opposed their president.

However, there are some potential candidates who are already making a name for themselves.  In Senate confirmation hearings, two Republican Senators have made it clear that they will take a leading role in opposing the Democrats and their agenda.  They are Senator Cruz (Texas) and Senator Paul (Kentucky).  Although they did have differences with Trump over the past four years, they were generally supportive of his agenda.

Senator Ted Cruz ran for president in 2016 and was the last major candidate to drop out after it became clear that Trump would win the nomination.  He is eloquent and a strong conservative who has the backing of many grassroots Republican organizations.

Senator Rand Paul is an outspoken senator with libertarian leanings.  His father is former Congressman Ron Paul, who ran for president in 2012.  Although he disagreed with Trump on the deployment of US troops in the Middle East, like Trump, he favors small government.

While the 2024 presidential election will impact events, it is the 2022 election and the future of the “nullification” movement that will have the biggest impact in the near term.

As mentioned earlier, some candidates are already setting up their congressional campaigns.  Thanks to her vote for Trump’s impeachment, Liz Cheney is already being challenged in the Republican primary.  She will not be the only one to face competition from pro-Trump candidates.

The Nullification movement will also pick up as Biden reinstates many Obama era regulations.
Nullification is a principle that was frequently employed by southern states in the pre-Civil War era but died out after the war.  It says that each state can decide which federal rules to obey.

The principle gained life again in the 1990s when the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government could not impose rules on the state if they didn’t provide the necessary funding.  The ruling declared unconstitutional a law that forced states to impose additional rules on gun purchases.

Ironically, this principle was expanded by the Obama administration to stop states from enforcing federal laws on immigration.  The principle was also used extensively by Democratic states like California during the Trump Administration to ignore laws that would send undocumented immigrants back to their homes in other countries.

As the Biden Administration is expected to push legislation and regulation on gun rights, abortion, the environment, immigration, voting procedures, and economic regulation, we can expect states to refuse to enforce federal legislation.  Since the federal government does not have that many law enforcement officers and relies on local police to enforce federal laws, this is essentially the same as nullification.

The states have already started pushing back.  Texas is already suing the federal government to prevent them from ignoring immigration laws in Texas.  And, in a public defiance of Biden, governors of both Texas and Florida withdrew their National Guard units from the District of Columbia when it was discovered that they were expected to sleep in substandard accommodations like the marble floor of the halls of Congress and parking lots.

So, can the federal government impose its dictates on the states?  The federal government does not have enough law enforcement officers to do the job.  Nor can it use the National Guard since it is controlled by the governors.  The military is prohibited from law enforcement unless there is an insurrection and declaring an insurrection against Republican states is one way to guarantee an insurrection and the resulting civil war.  It will strengthen the position of legislatures that are considering secession.
In the end, although it appears that the GOP is in a weakened condition, it is much stronger than many of its opponents think.  While it is weakened in Washington, its strength lies in the states, where the concept of just ignoring Washington and its orders is gaining momentum.

While, the Democrats may control Washington and the federal government, they are projecting weakness.  Surrounding the Capitol and the inauguration with barbed wire and three divisions of military while swearing in a new president who is saddled with serious questions about his mental health projects weakness, not power.

This projection of weakness will continue as 7,000 troops are expected to be stationed until March (may be more) in the District of Columbia – a ratio of DC population to troops of 100 to 1, which according to International Institute of Strategic Studies is a higher civilian to military ratio than in China’s Central Theater Command, which protects Beijing.

In the end, Biden may choose to force his unpopular regulations and laws on the states only to find that the governors of Republican states like Florida and Texas have more power than he does.
Although it is too early to make a final judgment or prediction on the future status of the republican party and the emerging leadership after Trump, he may be still holding more influence until the 2022 mid-term election.